Well Said Podcast | Feb. 17

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Heather Reisman:
Hi, I’m Heather Reisman, and this is Well Said, a podcast on the art and science of living well. This podcast is brought to you by Indigo. Robert Jones, Jr. received his BFA, magna cum laude, in creative writing and then an MFA in fiction from Brooklyn College. He is the writer and activist behind the online social justice community, Son of Baldwin. His work to dismantle oppressive systems and tell intersectional stories from a black queer perspective is making quite an impact.

Robert Jones, Jr.:
What a gift to build bridges instead of create caverns.

Heather Reisman:
That’s Robert Jones, Jr. His debut novel, The Prophets, has received the kinds of accolades reserved for a very few. We hear a grand achievement reminiscent of the work of Toni Morrison, lyricism that recalls the work of James Baldwin. The Prophets tells a powerful tale of love, faith, and connection seen through the lens of two enslaved men on a Deep South plantation. The book has already earned high praise, and we’re delighted to be joined today by Robert to talk about his book. Thank you so much for being here.

Robert Jones, Jr.:
Thank you so much for having me.

Heather Reisman:
I have to say, one of the parts of my job I love the most is getting to select books for Heather's Picks. I can just say that The Prophets had me at “hello.”

Robert Jones, Jr.:
Oh, that is so kind and generous of you.

Heather Reisman:
The Prophets is your first novel, and you've already been compared to some of the finest writers of our time. Congratulations. It is a beautiful and powerful story. Tell us about your calling to write this story.

Robert Jones, Jr.:
Heather, you know, I was an undergraduate student in my final semester. My minor was Africana studies, and it dawned on me that I had not read a single work—and I read hundreds upon hundreds of pages of canon—where I came across a character or a figure who lived at the intersection of blackness and queerness prior to the Harlem Renaissance. And so that was a question in my mind. Where were the black queer people before the Harlem Renaissance? As I did additional research, I found references, but they were always references around sexual assault or some form of depravity. And my question was: what about love? And because Toni Morrison herself said, “If you cannot find the book you wish to read, then you must write it,” I knew I would have to take up the daunting task of imagining and writing what would eventually become The Prophets.

Heather Reisman:
So you wanted to write a love story between two black men. What made you decide to situate it, as you did, in that time of slavery?

Robert Jones, Jr.:
There is this sense among members of black communities that queerness in black people is the result of some sort of trauma—that it is not intrinsic or natural to an African person. Balderdash. It is as natural as the sun rises. I wanted to go back into a place where black queerness or black queer figures had been erased and tell a story that I had not seen, of two enslaved young men who are not just black but are also queer and in love and what the ramifications of that would be for not just themselves but for everyone around them.

Heather Reisman:
Of the many luminaries that you mention in the rich Acknowledgments section of the book, including Alice Walker, Octavia Butler, James Baldwin, and Maya Angelou, who among them has most inspired your writing style? Whose do you feel is channeling through your fingers as you write?

Robert Jones, Jr.:
Toni Morrison. You know, every Toni Morrison novel I ever read, I had to read three times in order to get what she was saying. Because it was in plain English, but the way the words were put together was so strange to me, so different. And I said if I could just reach out and touch the hem of Toni Morrison's garment and study her, read all of her works, and then come back to this and try to do those same things, transform the language, maybe I have something. Maybe I could achieve something. She was the one that taught me that writing could be a profession. That it can be an art. That it could explain my own life to me. That it could put me in touch with others who share my points of view and thoughts about the world. That it could touch others in a way that could be healing. Her work certainly touched me in a way that was healing. She saved my life.

Heather Reisman:
Wow. You know, this podcast is meant to inspire our readers, and with people who can help them understand the art and science of living well. And so when I hear you say that, it makes me, ah, want to get your point of view on fiction and its ability to build empathy.

Robert Jones, Jr.:
I just read an article, about two months ago, that talked about how reading helps build empathy in people who read. And so I thought, what a gift to the world to be able to be a writer—to build bridges instead of create caverns. Reading is some of the most important thing we do. And I don't understand the idea of writing or reading as a secondary form—that we should be focused on other trades, for example, that are considered more valuable to the society—when I believe art, and in particular writing, is so crucially important to the human being to… to create full dimensional human beings who can look at another human being and say, “I respect you simply because you're here, you exist, you're alive.” That is the power of writing.

Heather Reisman:
Empathy has to be the coin of the realm. And if ever there was a moment when we needed it. I'm so glad to have you share your perspective on that. I'd love to talk a little bit about your creative process before we get into the specifics of this magnificent story. Share a little bit about how you work. How did The Prophets come to be?

Robert Jones, Jr.:
The very first time I set out to write down what would eventually become The Prophets, it happened as a result of an assignment given to me in my first semester of grad school by Stacey D’Erasmo, an author herself. She told us to go out into the world and find physical objects that a character we’re thinking about for a story or a novel might possess. And because serendipity exists, I found, in the gutter by the garbage, a pair of shackles in Brooklyn—just in the street. And I picked them up. And of course I wondered, “Well, what would somebody be doing with these?” But the second thought was, “Whoever I'm writing about is enslaved. This is giving me permission to write what I think I want to write about,” which is a black queer character in antebellum slavery. So, I went back and I started jotting things down. What this person looked like; how tall they were; the shape of their face; what their hair texture felt like.

Heather Reisman:
Who did that first character become?

Robert Jones, Jr.:
It was Samuel.

Heather Reisman:
Okay.

Robert Jones, Jr.:
Whose name originally was Simon. And so I'm writing all about him. And initially, The Prophets was going to be told solely from Samuel's point of view. But then I quickly realized that he did not have enough information to tell the story that I was trying to tell. And so I said, okay, maybe it can be between Samuel and his love interest, Isaiah. But then I realized the two of them together still did not give me the breadth that I needed to tell the story. And then I realized that the story was really the heart of it was their love, and that love needed witnesses. And so then I said, all right, these other characters are going to have to have a voice in the narrative, to tell us what they think about Samuel and Isaiah and what they share. And from there, I had a dream—and this is the absolute truth—where I jotted something down in the middle of the night—in the dark, I don't even remember writing it down—woke up the next morning, read it, and it said, “You do not yet know us.” And I said, “Are these the ancestors telling me that they need a voice in this narrative?” How do I work that in? Because it's a direct address. So do they talk directly to me, to the characters, to the reader? And the answer was “Yes.” And so I started to intersperse the ancestral voice into this book, and then came across something else that they said to me, which was, “This is not the beginning, but here we shall begin.” And I said,”Oh, they're leading me even further into the past, across the Atlantic, to these pre-colonial societies where there's an echo between two characters there and Samuel and Isaiah. And how this all came together is the characters were driving me, the entire time. They drove structure. They drove plot. And with the help of my editor, the dear Sally Kim, I was able to sort of shape this in a way that felt cohesive. Also, reading Toni Morrison's Paradise and Ayana Mathis' The Twelve Tribes of Hattie helped me to think about how multiple characters can speak and still feel part of the same world. And that is how The Prophets shaped itself.

Heather Reisman:
Why do I feel like I've just been able to listen in to the most amazing writing tutorial? I mean, that's just beautiful.

Robert Jones, Jr.:
Thank you.

Heather Reisman:
Here's a quote which lots of people think is from James Baldwin but was actually a tweet you published a few years ago. “We can disagree and still love each other, unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” How did these words inform the stories that you tell, and in particular this story, just as we dive into it?

Robert Jones, Jr.:
You know, that is… to me the ultimate moral of The Prophets is that, okay, let's say in real life because of your upbringing, you do not quote-unquote ‘agree’ with my quote-unquote ‘lifestyle’ as a queer person. Fine; I cannot force you to like me. But what we should have at base is the notion that I am here, I am alive, and I deserve to be respected as a human being, as a living creature on this planet. So you must not deny me my rights, and you must not deny me my privileges—no matter what you feel personally. If we can get to that baseline, humanity has a chance. And if we cannot, we… we risk self-destruction. And that is… I think ultimately the moral of The Prophets is that we have many paths we can go down, but only some of them are going to lead us to our next stage, while the others are going to lead us to the fire next time—as James Baldwin might say.

Heather Reisman:
It's so right for this moment. I think that's why so many who have written about the book suggest that it does have lessons important to now. If there was one big idea, in addition to the one we just explored, that you want people to feel when they finished reading the book?

Robert Jones, Jr.:
I want them to feel angry—at our failures toward one another, our failure of responsibility toward one another. I want them to feel the anger of that. But I also want them to feel the hope of how simply we could overcome it if we just dared, as Maya Angelou once said, to dare to look into each other's face and say, “Good morning.”

Heather Reisman:
Wouldn’t it be amazing if the anger, that we feel spewing against each other at this moment, could, as you suggest, be turned into anger at this behaviour that is unacceptable. Wow.

Robert Jones, Jr.:
And that inspires us to righteous acts.

Heather Reisman:
A good way to think about it. Anger should inspire us to righteous acts. Wonderful. The two main characters, I yearned to be back with those characters—for several weeks after the book was finished. So Isaiah and Samuel, they have the most tender relationship. What was the most important to you in developing them and in expressing that tenderness and that love, and the intensity of it?

Robert Jones, Jr.:
That it be unabashed. Because for so long, queer people… black queer people must live in shame, must cower in closets, must deny their natural inclinations because it might be offensive to others. So it was very intentional that Samuel and Isaiah would be utterly in love, passionately in love. Because we often don't get to see men in general vulnerable, tender, compassionate. Everything is toxic masculinity: strength, we must conquer. Where is the humanity? And that is what was most important to me. I wanted to ensure that the reader got, through all the brutality and all the other things that are happening in this world, Samuel and Isaiah's humanity.

Heather Reisman:
Beautiful. The women in the book are also especially nuanced. How did you conjure them?

Robert Jones, Jr.:
That was also intentional. I read so many feminist works, umm, so many works by black women. I drew upon my own life and thought about people like my grandmother and great grandmother, and their sisters. I thought about all of the great black women in the world, such as Shirley Chisholm or Ella Baker. And I thought about how I do not want to deify—because that removes their humanity—but I want to imbue these women—because they're human beings, just like the rest of us, they're not some special separate species, these are human beings—with wants and desires and frailties and vulnerabilities and strengths. And I just wanted to imagine all of that and invest all of that into these characters. And also their complaints, because I am a witness for black women. And what they complain about is patriarchy. And I wanted to be able to show how patriarchy negatively impacts their lives, and also how they subvert it. Because they're clever women and smart women and vulnerable women and beautiful women, and I wanted it all to be in there.

Heather Reisman:
Was there any point during the 14 years that you wondered would you get to the end, would you stick with it?

Robert Jones, Jr.:
Every single day. I gave up, so many times. Because I thought, one, I do not have the skill to pull this off. Two, no one's going to want to read this. And no one's going to care. They're going to see this as some part of me trying to push the alleged gay agenda. But the voices would not relent. I had to pay homage to those people that I'm descended from, who sacrificed and endured that the dream that one day I, as a black person, could move freely in the world and write and read as I please. Because, as you know, I'm descended from people for whom reading and writing was illegal. They were threatened with punishment of violence or death if they dared read or write. Who was I, then, to give up? And so at the edges of the day—as Toni Morrison would put it—I would write. Because while I was an undergrad, I was working three part-time jobs. While I was in grad school, I was working two part-time jobs. And then eventually a full-time job where I was writing, which was sapping me of my creative energy. So I would wake up at three o'clock in the morning to write about Samuel and Isaiah and their world—the witching hour, the perfect time, and that is how I got through it.

Heather Reisman:
Aspiring writers, take note. It's interesting that you refer to part of the motivation, or maybe the main motivation, to continue was the sense that you owed something to your ancestors—the story layers and genealogies of characters descending from the Kasongo people of Africa.

Robert Jones, Jr.:
Now, I should say that the Kasongo people are actually an amalgam, a fictional tribe that I drew from several tribes’ particular characteristics that I found interesting and that could serve as a contrast against what we know in Western cultures. So during my research, I did seek… because there's this idea that there was no such thing as homosexuality on the continent of Africa prior to European intervention. Now, the mistake comes in because as Esther Armah—who is from Ghana, she's a brilliant artist and activist—she says, “If you asked my grandparents what is a homosexual, they would say, ‘I have no idea. We don't have that.’ But if you explain to them what homosexuality meant, they’d go, ‘Oh, of course, love, sex.’” Because there was no need to single it out or separate it from the community's ideas of love and sex, because there was nothing shameful about it, or sinful, until you have European colonization and Christianity saying this is unacceptable. And so when I went back and looked through the anthropological and sociological record for these times, I found that African notions of gender, gender identity, sexuality were vastly different from what we've come to understand here in the West. Ideas that I thought were universal but was surprised to learn are not. And so I wanted to draw on all of that when I was talking about the Kasongo people who I invent. And I drew from several tribes like the Dagara tribe—which is a tribe that's in the area we now know as Burkina Faso—where their queer community members were considered guardians, guardians of the gates between the Here and the Hereafter. And so there were all of these different things that I wanted to pull in, and said this is beautiful and it serves as a contrast to what we endure under the Western gaze.

Heather Reisman:
How are you feeling about the incredible reception this book has now received?

Robert Jones, Jr.:
Overwhelmed and entirely grateful, because this is not the reception I expected. As a writer who's putting your… your first work out into the world for the entire world to comment on, you prepare yourself for the worst. You prepare to be critically pulled apart. So I was waiting for that. And the positive reception has been an utter surprise, because of that. But it also feels like such a warm blanket, almost like a grandmother's hug. And it's, ah, just so humbling, absolutely humbling that people find this work to be of value. I am so grateful.

Heather Reisman:
I could sit here and just listen endlessly, as I'm sure our audience could. So, a few fun questions. What are you reading right now?

Robert Jones, Jr.:
I am about to start reading The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett.

Heather Reisman:
Another Heather's Pick! What brings you joy?

Robert Jones, Jr.:
Children's laughter. My husband's jokes—they're corny, but they make me laugh. My mother's love. My sister’s films—my sister’s a genius filmmaker. My best friend Arlene, who… who has been my friend since the third grade. We've been friends for over 40 years. Her family brings me joy because they accept me as one of their own. When people support one another rather than tear other people down brings me tremendous joy.

Heather Reisman:
What does purposeful living mean to you?

Robert Jones, Jr.:
It means living with intention. And that intention is always I'm going to do the best that I can and the moment that I'm in. And what that means is I'm going to be my best self to other people as well, hoping that from that example, they will be their best selves to other people, and that just catches on. Purposeful life.

Heather Reisman:
Beautiful. Thank you, so much. It has been a joy to have you for this time.

Robert Jones, Jr.:
Heather, this has been an utter joy. And thank you so much for having me.

Heather Reisman:
Thank you for tuning in to my conversation with the wonderful Robert Jones, Jr. For more ideas on living well, and for access to the books featured in this episode, visit indigo.ca/podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please leave us a rating on Apple Podcasts. You can subscribe wherever you listen to your podcasts. Well Said was produced for Indigo by Vocal Fry Studios, and is hosted by me, Heather Reisman.

Shivani Persad
The information provided in this podcast should not be relied upon by our listeners as medical advice, even where it is has been presented by physicians or medical practitioners. Any information presented in this podcast is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The views expressed throughout this podcast represent the views of the guests and do not necessarily represent the views of Indigo.